Spring comes with winter still in hand. Frozen to way-too-squishy mud makes for frustrating, if not entertaining, travel conditions along dirt roads. The freshet breaks through the ice (what little there may have been this year) and carries mini-icebergs to melt downstream while the anadromous fish swim their way upriver to spawn. Neo-tropical birds return and you suddenly hear a strange male fluttering amongst the thicket calling for his “Phoebe” in raspy voice. And let’s not forget those odd duck sounds you can hear in the wetlands. You look and you look but no duck is croaking “Qua-akk,” instead you find a little amphibious masked bandit called the
Wood Frog, who is making all that racket, along with all his brothers as they call out from their little territorial plot. Sprouts dare the dramatically fluctuating temperatures between warm days and cold nights, bursting forth in an array of woodland beauties. Spring beckons us to come closer and take it in with all our senses. Breathe in the freshness of new life emerging. Gaze at the triumph of the little seedlings that could. Listen to the sonnets of euphoric male birds as they claim their territory and welcome their lady in. Feel the soft buds of pussy willows. Taste the tender greens and be enlivened by spring!
An ephemeral plant has a short growing season and in fact, may not be thriving much past the beginning of May. There is only a short window to enjoy these delicate herbaceous April beauties before they let the riot of summer take over. Like the creatures of the vernal pools it is a race to grow and produce before being shaded out by the undergrowth and trees or wilted by the heat of the sun.
A dark beauty stands napping in the woods. Maroon flower heads nodding gently. This is the Wake-Robin Trillium (Trillium erectum) of the Bunchflower family (Melanthiaceae). Named such for signifying the time when the ground is finally soft enough to bury your dead. The flower is comprised of three red-purple petals and three green sepals and is pollinated by flies. As you may guess, a flower pollinated by early spring flies may not attract such critters with a sweet scent but a more unpleasant odor. It is for this reason another name for this trillium is “Stinky Benjamin.” One could create a story about some old uncle Benjamin dying and as his carcass sat rotting upon the early spring Earth, dark blood-like flowers sprouted from his body. Go ahead, I dare you to make up an amusing story about ol’ Stinky Benjamin.
As the rich woodlands continue to soften and warm, trout lilies begin to carpet the forest floor. The Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) of the Lily family (Liliaceae) has purple-brown speckled green leaves, hence why it is named after the Brown Trout which has speckles along its sides. The flowers are brown-streaked yellow with three recurved petals and three sepals. The leaves will come first, so keep an eye out for the mottled leaves because they are a tender green and can be eaten raw in a salad. As with any new food that you are experimenting with, nibble on a small amount to be sure your body is happy with the addition.
Ah, and then there is Toothwort, my favorite spring ephemeral wild edible. The leaves and flowers taste like horseradish and have just the perfect bite back of any plant stating loudly and with feeling, “You can’t taste me and not know Spring’s tenacity!” You can find Toothwort in moist woodlands and near woodland streams, even intermittent ones. Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) is a member of the Brassicaceae family (mustard) and so is related to Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and horseradish. Juicy stems taper into three wide-toothed green leaflets. Some leaves have a reddish hue so yes, if you are not paying attention, they may look like poison ivy (so pay attention). The flowers are white with four petals. All aerial parts are edible. They are yummy raw in a salad or eaten as a trailside nibble. I also like them cooked up in an omelet.
When identifying any plant you hope to be food, it is always recommended to bring along three wild edible trail guides and be sure that at least two confirm edibility and under what conditions or bring along an experienced naturalist and watch them eat the plant first – just to be on the safe side. Happy spring!
“Spring Ephemerals” appeared in the April 7, 2016 edition of the Shelburne Falls & West County Independent.
(That’s right; I was picked up by another newspaper! Huzzah!)
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, and wild edible enthusiast lives in Ashfield.